The Sex of Your Dreams

Elena, a single 32-year-old, recently woke up flushed and sweaty from a sex dream during which she had an intense orgasm. She was pleasantly surprised at first, but then details started flooding back. "It was with my best friend," she admits. "My best girl friend." The dream left her feeling embarrassed and disturbed, wondering what the heck it all meant.

That's the tricky part about getting down and dirty in your dreams: While you may love the steamy sex scenes and, in some cases, the sheet-twisting sensations those visions can provide, you may also wake up feeling confused, guilty, or totally creeped out. Do these unconscious fantasies mean you're secretly attracted to your best friend? That you still harbor feelings for your ex? Or that you're yearning to hook up with a hot stranger?

Highly charged nocturnal sessions happen because of normal physiological changes: During the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep cycle, your central nervous system fires up and your body goes through the same physical reactions that occur when you're turned on in real life. "In REM, breathing and blood flow naturally increase, including blood flow to the genitals," says dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. "So it's not surprising that these physiological changes often express themselves as an erotic dream." Your menstrual cycle can also influence the likelihood of having an unconscious frisky frolic: A Journal of Sex Research study found that women have more sex dreams during ovulation, probably because their libidos are higher then (driven by the biological urge to procreate).


Antonio Zadra, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the Université de Montréal, analyzed more than 3,500 dreams and discovered that at least 8 percent of them contained some sort of sexual activity. His findings suggest that erotic dreams may have a straightforward psychological explanation: They simply reflect what we're thinking about when we're awake. So if you dream about sex at night, it's because it was on your mind during the day. And if you have ever woken up thinking you've had a legitimate orgasm while asleep, you might have—4 percent of our dreams actually result in one. (Interestingly, men's dreams are more selfish; they rarely dream about their partners' orgasms, whereas women often do.)

However, not all sex dreams are actually about sex, says Bulkeley. Sometimes they're a symbol for emotions, such as being pissed off at your guy. "Dreams can use the drama of a sexual relationship to express emotional truths and reveal conflicts," he says. "I once spoke with a woman who wanted to become a writer, but her husband was totally opposed to the idea. One night she dreamed that she was having an affair with a male writer. The dream had nothing to do with sex—her goals were causing conflict in her relationship." That said, he adds, "the worst thing to do is to treat a dream like it's a Magic 8 Ball." (In other words, if you dream that you or your partner cheated, for example, it isn't necessarily a red flag that your relationship is in hot water.) Instead, think of your dreams as cues to do some exploring about yourself or your relationship.

Want a little help? We got top experts to decipher three common erotic dream themes.

His Cheating Heart

Unfaithfulness is the most common dream scenario for couples, says Bulkeley, and that's no surprise: Getting close to someone means being vulnerable. Dreams that include threats, like your man fooling around, are like fire drills, he says. "Your dreaming mind might imagine the worst-case scenario—cheating—to prepare yourself for if it happened," says Bulkeley.

These dreams may reflect your lack of confidence and trust, notes Drew Ramsey, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Or, having a dream about a partner's infidelity can mean you feel like you're not getting his attention, says Gillian Holloway, Ph.D., author of The Complete Dream Book of Love and Relationships . If so, talk with your guy about how you two can stay more connected. If you're having dream flings, this can also signal you're not getting what you need from your partner, according to psychologist and dream analysis expert Michael Lennox. And that's another reason to have a talk.

Blast from the Past

It's not unusual for exes to creep into sex dreams, but having an erotic dream starring an old crush usually doesn't mean you still harbor feelings. More likely, it's your brain reusing a familiar face from your past. "Research shows that there's a repetition dimension to dreaming, which is why we still have anxiety dreams about not studying for a college exam years after leaving school," says Bulkeley. "Our past experiences shape who we are today, and though the man in the dream may not be in your life anymore, he's still a part of who you are."

Exes who appear in dreams often symbolize your current partner, if you have one, says Holloway. "Making out with an ex might mean you want your current partner to find you desirable too," she says.

Taboo Sex

Whether it's a passionate romp with a stranger, sex with another woman, or a porn-worthy orgy, Bulkeley says these dream scenes may reflect your inner desires, albeit in some cases an extreme version of a lusty longing. There's a male/female divide on this type of dream: In Zadra's research, men were twice as likely as women to dream about multiple partners, while the female unconscious favored getting busy with a celeb.

Either way, there's no holding back racy thoughts in dreams. That's because they're judgment-free zones in which our subconscious can let loose and we can live out a fantasy, even if we'd never act on it in real life. So lie back and enjoy.

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